It’s not a pleasant thought, but consider the growing collection of obituaries for the 60′s most alluring radicals. They all seem to follow a boilerplate formula. Inevitably the words “fighter” or “good fight” come up. Throw in a “la lucha continua” for good measure.
Which is all well and good, there’s nothing wrong with honoring our own. But beyond hero-worship and self-congratulation there’s the need to acknowledge the reality of the Left’s present marginality. Wes Enzinna, in his own way, took up this task in N+1′s June book review. In a sympathetic portrait of John Ross, a recently deceased radical journalist, Enzinna explores the contradictions in that writer’s persona, as well as the Zapatista movement he championed.
Ross himself had reservations about the hopes he and many others attached to the peasant uprising, telling his future eulogist that:
There’s this word in Spanish, sobredimensionar. It means to over-dimensionalize. I think we over-dimensionalized the Zapatistas. We wanted them to be too many things. We wanted them to represent the whole country’s problems. And I had a lot to do with promoting that image. But they’re just a bunch of Indians twenty miles from the border with Guatemala. They’re more marginal this year than the last, and they were more marginal last year than the one before.
I discussed this “over-dimensionalization” in the Winter 2011 issue of Jacobin.
Why the encuentros had such an effect on the international Left is harder to understand. Certainly the Zapatistas’ ethos was compatible with allies increasingly skeptical of both industrial growth and, after the nightmare of official Communism, state power. Revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century sought to overturn class cleavages, a social fixture since the Neolithic Revolution. A century later, their successors aspired only to “resist” and free space from concentrated power—to negate, not create. The enemy was no longer capitalism; it was neoliberalism. Its gravedigger, not an organized working class, but a fragmented “multitude”
Sentiment also provided the lens through which movements in the global South were viewed. Not quite the liberated paradise the imagination invites, Chiapas is a deeply impoverished region without much to show for almost two decades of revolution. Illiteracy stands at over 20 percent, basic public services like running water, electricity, and sewage are luxuries, and infant mortality runs double the national average. It would be absurd to admonish the Zapatistas for failing to overcome generations of poverty in a single sweep, but is it too much to ask their privileged supporters abroad to pay more attention to the material conditions in Chiapas and less on the innovative ways they use their laptops to conjure “resistance”?
Resistance is, after all, a futile, symbolic act unless it leads to material change. The frequent appearance of the black bloc, a tactic in which activists don black masks to engage in ritualistic property destruction, alienating the larger mass of protestors in the process, epitomizes the new spirit. The irony is that, whatever their faults, the FLN cadre from the cities that traveled to the Lacandon Jungle took care to understand their surroundings and the local population. Yet many of those whom they’ve inspired have formed elitist cliques, engaging in the paramilitary nihilism of the black bloc, fetishizing physical confrontation with the police, preferring personal acts of rebellion in the here and now over the unglamorous job of organizing a conscious class movement. “Educate, Agitate, Organize” has faded into “Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!”
The political defeat of the New Left and the fate of the undeterred of Ross’ generation and those influenced by them is well-encapsulated in the “revolutionary tourism” that caused so many to respond to the stagnation of the American workers’ movement by looking abroad for inspiration. This is the context in which undoubtedly brave internationalists like John Ross must be examined.
Alexander Cockburn, Ross’ friend and frequent publisher, has no room for such nuance. Accusing Enzinna of “auditioning for a column in Slate,” he writes, “we have here the utterly conventional reduction of a left writer, who brilliantly, unconventionally pulled off the tricky, demanding shot of highly informative reports from Mexico and elsewhere, to a walk-on role in the history of literary picaresque.” And what we have here is a species of Cockburn that has become too familiar lately: the washed-up hack who would’ve had kinder words for Enzinna if he were a right-wing militia member crawling around the Ozarks using a picture of Janet Reno for target practice. Not surprisingly, Cockburn misses the point entirely. For one, despite his claims to the contrary, John Ross was indeed a marginal figure and his frequent CounterPunch articles didn’t do anything to change that. And, for Ross, his politics did more than inform his analysis, they informed the way he lived his life. Rocking an eye-patch, that red beret, and invoking the spirit of “rebel journalists” like Jack Reed, he himself cultivated this “literary picaresque” image.
As for his political legacy, it was a legacy of defeat and failure. Not personal failings, though like the rest of us Ross had those too, but the retreat of progressive movements across the advanced capitalist world and the onslaught of neoliberalism. The defeat not of an individual, but a wider movement and all that movement has to offer the world.
Sure, we can heed the calls and just “keep on keepin’ on,” but a fine way to do Ross justice is to capture the complexities of his life and the political vision he devoted that life to. Beyond standard-fare hagiography and the worshiping of commitment for commitment’s sake lies a realm of honesty. That’s worth a lot more than blind exaltation and gentle reassurance.
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